Reduce Holiday Stress by Focusing on Realistic Expectations

Out guest blogger today is an award winning author who has some really good ideas on how to survive and work through your grief. Her words today are helpful and astute. We hope that her post helps you through this holiday season. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator.

holidaybibleThe holiday season tends to be stressful for all of us, yet when you’re grieving, the season is filled with even more anxiety.  A time that should bring joy may instead bring just the opposite.  One way to help you cope with the hustle and bustle of the season is to reduce holiday stress  by focusing on realistic expectations.

Our expectations—both positive and negative—tend to bring added stress to an already ‘emotionally charged’ time.  We try to do more than we can realistically handle; we expect everything to be perfect; we want everyone to be on their best behavior; we want each person we encounter to radiate the spirit of the season; and on and on.  These are completely unrealistic expectations, and we’re sure to be disappointed.

On top of the typical expectations, when you’re grieving, even more is going on in your heart and head.  You wonder how you’ll react (and how everyone else will respond) to the absence of your loved one.  You worry whether you’ll be able to make it through the day’s activities.  You may not be mentally or physically able to tackle your typical preparations.  You’re concerned about other people’s expectations for you.

Stop!  Let go of all your ‘shoulds.’  File them away for another time.

You have permission to realize (and admit) that this year will be a little different—and that it’s okay.   It’s all right if this year is more subdued.  It’s okay if you do less.  It’s okay if you talk about your loved one and shed a few tears.  It’s not only okay, but it’s much better if you don’t push yourself to do too much!  You can do more at a later date.  Right now, you’re only making changes for this year.  You can adjust again, if necessary.

Don’t try to make this year like all the rest.  Focus on relaxing, being thankful for what you still have, and finding small joys within the things you choose to do and the people you decide to spend time with.  Accept that you have permission to make choices about how you’ll celebrate.  You don’t have to be driven or bound by the choices of other people around you.  And be sure to make plans, however simple and low key they may be.  Don’t leave your plans up to chance.

christmasdogsI love this photo of the ‘Christmas  dogs.’ I smile whenever I see it!  Look for some things to bring a smile to your face.  You may feel insincere at first, but keep on trying!

Yes, this year may include inescapable feelings of pain and sorrow for you.  And this Christmas may be a far cry from Christmases past.  But you can make things easier on yourself—and it’s still possible to experience joy along with sadness.  Adjust your expectations and reduce your stress whenever and wherever possible.  Take control of your holidays instead of leaving details to chance, or letting the holidays (and other people) take control for you.

Judy Brizendine is an author, a blogger, and a speaker. She is committed to focusing attention on grief—and changing the way people view one of life’s toughest experiences everyone will face. Judy has written two books, STUNNED by Grief and STUNNED by Grief Journal. STUNNED by Grief  captured the Gold Medal for Nonfiction-Grief in the 2013 Readers’ Favorite International Awards, and both books received Award-Winning Finalist honors in their respective Self-Help categories in the “USA Best Books 2011” Awards, sponsored by USA Book News. STUNNED by Grief was named to Library Journal’s list of “Best Books 2011: Self-Help.”

Photo credit:  Photos courtesy of

Finding New Traditions

Deb Buehler is back today with a post most of us can relate to. When you’ve suffered the loss of a loved one, your family’s traditions with regard to holidays may change and new traditions may be introduced. Change is difficult and the loss of a loved one can impact many things you wouldn’t normally think about like family holiday traditions. Deb’s post helps bring this time of year into perspective by taking a look at incorporating new traditions that can help ease your loss. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator

SONY DSCThe holiday season is hard after the loss of a loved one. In fact, it can be downright difficult to come upon the holiday season and feel anything but loss magnified. The holidays can be an uprooted, ungrounded, lonely time. Traditions feel empty, sticky or even impossible to approach – and families feel small and hollowed out by their loss.

I imagine the cold, dark evening when Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem – expectant with the anticipation of a new baby and no family with open arms and a warm meal to welcome them. Even the inn is full and there is no room.  How challenging to be without a sense of home when they (and all of us as we travel through loss) are in most need of one.

It is this same rootlessness with which I’ve moved through the holidays since the death of my parents. Some seasons I’ve felt far from the welcome of family with open arms and a warm meal. I’ve even looked at my own home as if it were that stable; a cheerless place absent of people I love.

While grief can make my home feel like that stable, there is also the reality of my own warm hearth, hearty meals waiting, and the loving support of my husband reaching into my sadness. Together we’ve had to find new ways to “do” the holidays.

This has meant looking a little harder for what is important now. Asking, trying, testing, stumbling along, sometimes getting part of it right, sometimes not. Slowly, slowly we’ve turned the anticipation of the Advent season into a journey of our own – seeking out what it is we want to keep, letting go of things that don’t hold particular meaning for us.

It hasn’t been easy. In fact, some things we’ve tried have bombed completely. And other times, we’ve found hints of what we want it to look like; the shape we want our holidays to be now.

Sunburst in snowy Spruce ForestLike Joseph and Mary, we’ve been helped by strangers unawares; the couple who sell Christmas trees on a rural Indiana farm where we’ve gone and cut our own tree on the bitterest cold days. Each journey through the countryside has felt a little bit like building a new connection – a small, joyful glimmer of a tradition found.

A friend told us about a university near here that hosts a community night of holiday music through their music school. The first year we were blown away by the extensive talent and enthusiasm while being touched by something that felt old and familiar too.

And, we’ve traveled for more than one Christmas – once enjoying the company of strangers from all over the world gathered around the massive fireplace in Curry Village, Yosemite National Park. Even though we were all far from home and didn’t know one another there was a simple sense of companionship as we sat by a crackling fire.

Like Joseph and Mary, we’ve had to look beyond the straw, the dusty barn interior, the sweet scent of animals, had to open our hearts to the loneliness, doubt and fear only to discover that God is always creating new beginnings in ways we could never imagine.

Deb Buehler is a professional writer who co-authored the book The Hollowed Heart: Inspiration for Women Awakening from Grief and Loss. She is also a creative grief coach working with individuals who are actively on the path of wholehearted living after loss. To learn more about Deb visit

Images courtesy stock.xchng.

Ashes and Embers

We welcome Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld back to the blog today. On the topic of dealing with grief during the holidays Dr. Neeld has some sage advice and creative ideas to help the bereaved. There’s comfort and compassion in her words, something that is always needed at this time of year. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator

Words for Those Who May Be Grieving During the Holidays

927376_77286189My great-grandmother Susan’s farmhouse was heated by the fireplace, which also served as the cooking stove.  Every night before she went to bed, Grandma leaned into the wide fireplace with its iron pots for simmering stews and flat pans with long handles for baking sweet potatoes, to spread the burning embers and then cover them with ash.  By protecting these embers during the night, come morning light, she could stir a fire to start a new day.

Many of us, doing our best at this holiday time of year to cope with loss and pain, find ourselves looking into our hearts and seeing only gray, cold ashes.  We wonder—and perhaps even doubt—if there are any embers left to stir again into the light and warmth of a comforting fire.  What are we to do during the cold, dark night?

What are we to do with the love that now seems to have nowhere to go?  How do we express our connection with someone who is no longer here but who is still as close to our heart as our very breathing?  I remember what my sister Barbara did the first Christmas after our mother and father died:  she made tiny bears out of Daddy’s ties and tiny rabbits out of Mother’s 50th wedding anniversary beige silk dress and gave them to my brother and me for Christmas.  My friend Kay asked each family member at her holiday table to share a memory of her son.  My Aunt Blanche insisted on talking to her late husband Steve, an act that grief experts assert is a valuable thing to do.  Two precious children I know made ornaments for their absent dad and gave them the most prominent place on the Christmas tree.

What about the emotions that swirl?  Anger.  Blame.  Confusion.  Fear.  The most useful thing I know is to invite these intense feelings to come sit with us by the hearth.  The emotions are real and they are honest.  Rather than shun them because we think they are negative, our best response is to include the emotions, express them, talk with others about them.

ID-10081920And speaking of others. While the fireplace seems only to contain ash, we need the warmth, the support, the presence of our family and friends.  We also need to take care of ourselves.  Whatever nurtures us we should do.  A massage, a visit with a counselor, a medical checkup, a walk, a prayer, putting hyacinth bulbs in a clear crystal vase to bloom during the coldest winter months, building a bird house.  All can sustain us and help us endure.

When day broke on the farm in middle Georgia, Great-grandmother Susan returned to the fireplace. She flicked off the top layer of cold gray ash and began to arrange the tiny red embers.  As she blew and stirred, she incanted an ancient Irish blessing passed down in her family for generations:  Blessed by the Light of Peace.  Blessed by the Light of Grace.  Blessed by the Light of Light. 

And when the embers finally ignited into a warm blaze, Grandma stared into the spreading glow and added:  Blessed by the Light of Love.

May all of us this winter season know that we are blessed by the Light of Love.

Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph. D. has written an internationally acclaimed book on grief and loss, Seven Choices:  Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World.  PBS did a one-hour documentary based on Seven Choices that was shown on public television stations throughout the US; and Iowa Public Television did a one-hour documentary on Seven Choices that was shown in their large mid-west market.  The American Red Cross chose Seven Choices as the book to distribute in New York at 9/11.  For more about Elizabeth Harper Neeld and her work, see  

Images courtesy of Dreamstime and satit_srihin /

Managing the Holiday Season When You’re Grieving

Today, we welcome back author and psychotherapist, Dr. Debra Holland. Dr. Debra has some tips for getting through the holidays when you’ve experienced a loss. As always, her words bring comfort and hope to those for whom the holidays are, and remain, painful. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator 

Holidays are a time of family coming together—of warmth, love, and making lifelong memories. The holiday season is also when you can connect to your past. It’s almost impossible to have Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Hanukah without thinking of those who are no longer with you.

687857_90007417Holidays can bring up sadness and grief for loved ones who passed on–perhaps many years ago. You can miss them and yearn for their presence, perhaps more than at any other time of the year. Your memories of prior joyful celebrations might feel bittersweet. Or, your memories of departed loved ones may be warm and cherished. Celebrating traditions passed on from family members connects you with them.

The holidays can be hardest if your grief is raw. The bereaved often struggle just to survive from day to day, and the thought of preparing for a holiday can be overwhelming and painful. You might dread the coming holiday and perhaps wish you could avoid it altogether. The day itself might have a pall of sadness hanging over the festivities.

Conversely, the actual holiday might not be as bad as you think. The sadness and dread building up to the day can be far worse than the reality. Although you can feel the loss and miss the deceased, you can also have times of deep thankfulness for your blessings and gratitude for all the loved ones you have present. You can get caught up in the excitement of children celebrating, playing, and opening up presents. You can exchange stories and memories, causing laughter and tears. You feel a closer connection with your family.

To Change Traditions or to Keep Them

After the death of a loved one, carrying on with a traditional celebration might seem too painful and difficult. Sometimes families decide to completely forgo a celebration—for example, they take a cruise to get away. Or they stay home instead of going to grandma’s house like they always have.

Whether you stay home or you go away, you won’t escape the memories or the grief, so absolute avoidance of pain is futile. What’s important to consider is what’s best for everyone who’s grieving, especially the children. The emotional needs of children sometimes become lost in a family’s grief, and they need their holiday celebrations to continue, even if they are modified.

Have a family conference where you discuss how everyone feels, what people can handle when it comes to the workload of a holiday, what traditions are particularly dear to each person, and what new ones the family might implement. Pare down the chaos of the season to what’s meaningful and manageable.

Tips for Weathering the Holidays

  • Share how you’re feeling with trusted loved ones, especially the way your grief has changed or deepened due to the holiday.
  • Reduce your stress. This isn’t the year to worry about a perfect celebration. Only do what you feel is necessary.
  • Ask for help. Others will be happy to step forward to lend a hand. Let others know specifically what you need. Don’t say, “Can you bring something for dinner?” Do say, “Can you bring dessert for 10 people?”
  • Find a way to memorialize your loved one. Set out a special candle. Hang their stocking with the others and have everyone write a letter to the deceased. You can read them together on Christmas morning. Make an ornament with their picture on it or buy one that represents them in some way. Include the deceased in a family prayer.
  • Don’t let others direct how you should spend the holidays. Just because someone thinks it would be best for you to go away for the week, doesn’t mean it’s right for you.
  • Be of service to others. Helping others is a way to give new meaning to the holiday and help you feel better. Prepare and serve food at a homeless shelter or organize a gift drive for some needy families and deliver the presents yourself.
  • Realize that you might feel overwhelmed and exhausted, both from your reactions to the loss and from the stress and hectic pace of the holiday. As much as possible, get to bed early and take naps.
  • You don’t have to pretend to be happy. If you think your sadness might be a problem for others, have a little talk with them beforehand about how you and they will handle your feelings.
  • Spend time with people who are supportive and caring. By now, you know who among your friends and family is supportive and who’s not. Gravitate to the understanding ones and avoid the others.

During the holidays, you can’t help but think about and miss your loved one. However, try as much as possible not to dwell on your pain. Imagine your loved one being present in spirit. Instead of his or her absence, focus on the presence of the other family members. Your loss helps remind you of how precious time is with your family. Appreciate and love each one of them.

Debra Holland, Ph.d

Dr. Debra Holland is the New York Times best selling author of The Essential Guide to Grief and Grieving, which is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other bookstores.

Photo: Ben Earwicker, Garrison Photography, Boise, ID